In current UK practice, families are often matched with social workers and case workers who can best understand them. This means that, ideally, queer social services clients are matched with queer social workers, and minority clients with minority social workers, and so on. But there isn’t really a “so on” because that’s where it stops.
Where are the social workers who are drug users, living in poly households, part of the fetish or BDSM community, or former or current sexworkers? Even lone parent or white social workers with minority partners aren’t that visible.
It’s not that they aren’t there. All social workers were once students, so most of them have experienced being drunk, experimenting with drugs, and so on. Many will have experimented with BDSM and although poly social workers will be in the minority, experiences of a certain degree of ‘sharing’ partners temporarily (for example, through random hookups with people who are themselves seeing other people). They are us, and they’ve had our experiences. This goes for other professionals too. That drunk girl in the corset and micromini stumbling home from the club and dragging a guy she just met back with her might be teaching your kids in two years. That lad spewing up his guts as he holds onto a lampost might be on the Children’s Panel someday
And that’s wonderful, because without knowing their clients’ experiences, how can social workers engage with them and offer help and support? It’s unfortunate that most of them aren’t open about belonging to minority communities. It’s like it’s okay to be gay, but not to be poly, kinky or a drug user. These minorities are in the same position that the gay community was in half a century ago.
I can only surmise that they aren’t open because they fear being stigmatised, or not being promoted – maybe even losing their job. In 2008 a criminal justice social worker was fired in the UK because he was kinky (his boss found out he had a small online fetish clothing business and went to SM clubs). The European Court of Human Rights refused to hear the case, saying he was unreasonable not to see why they couldn’t employ him. A teacher in Ireland was fired for being pregnant while single (the case was recorded as Flynn v Power). A teacher in America called Melissa Petro was fired for having previously been a call girl when she was a student. Imagine if any of these people was fired for being gay, black or Jewish. There would be outrage. But because they’re kinky, a single mum, and a sexworker, nobody cares.
Labour rights and employment laws clearly need to be strengthened or changed to stop this discrimination against minorities and ensure equal human rights. Right now, sexual and ethnic minorities have more rights. Perhaps kinky, poly, single parents and sexworkers could be included under the umbrella term of ‘sexual minorities’ since they are discriminated on the basis of sexual proclivities, sexual behaviour outside marriage, and sex industry labour respectively. Enhancing the definition of sexual minorities to include these people and not just LGBTQ people, would better ensure equality.
Sadly, not only were these individuals targeted for severe discrimination, the families who are receiving social work services are losing out, too. How much could a bullied, slut-shamed teenager benefit from a social worker mentor and role model who is a former or current sexworker? Her confidence and outlook would change, and perhaps she could even educate her peers about slut-shaming. What about a young boy whose friends tease him for living in a poly household? How much might he benefit from a poly social worker who understands prejudice and can help him through these difficult times? I won’t go on – I’m sure you can think of some more examples.
Also, if social workers and other professionals are seen to be poly or kinky or ex-sexworkers, these groups will gradually not be stigmatised much (or at all). A hundred years ago if you were cohabiting it was ‘living in sin’ – yet now people are open about it, it’s more common and accepted. When educated, middle-class people are seen to be doing something, it can help alleviate stigma and it can also help to slowly normalise the issue, just as cohabitation and being gay has gradually been normalised. Even single parenthood and being kinky have been normalised to some extent; but we need to go further. Much, much further. And with poly people and sexworkers, the work has hardly begun (though not for want of trying).
But first things first – we have to work on employees’ rights (labour law and employment law) and on antidiscrimination laws.